BCAP project targets hybrid poplar for ZeaChem

By Kris Bevill | July 29, 2011

The latest round of Biomass Crop Assistance Program project areas announced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on July 26 includes a 7,000-acre hybrid poplar project in Boardman, Ore., designed to service ZeaChem Inc.’s nearby biochemical and cellulosic ethanol facility. ZeaChem is currently constructing a 250,000 gallon per year demonstration-scale facility in Boardman that is expected to become operational by early 2012. The company is also planning to begin constructing a 25 MMgy plant at Boardman late next year, pending USDA loan guarantee approval.

ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler said the BCAP project will help prove his company’s concept of using woody biomass from forests located in large, land consolidation areas. Earlier this year, ZeaChem signed a long-term feedstock agreement with GreenWood Tree Farm Fund LP, which owns 35,000 acres of sustainable tree farms in the Columbia River Basin area of Oregon and Washington. The BCAP project will allow GTFF to enter into a contract with the USDA to receive up to 75 percent of the costs to establish up to 7,000 acres of hybrid poplar and up to 15 years of annual maintenance payments for the crop.

According to Imbler, GTFF plans to intercrop hybrid poplar with longer growing trees that require more space. “If you think about the challenge of a tree farmer, you’re planting trees that may not mature for 30 years,” he said. “This is a really neat way of getting more productivity off the very same land.” This approach also complies with the USDA’s Wood-to-Energy Initiative, which is geared toward building a forest restoration economy by integrating energy feedstocks within the traditional forestry products sector.

The long-term feedstock agreement between GTFF and ZeaChem calls for GTFF to provide all of the feedstock for the demo facility and the majority of feedstock for the 25 MMgy plant. According to Imbler, if hybrid poplar were used to supply all of the commercial plant’s feedstock, it would require approximately 12,500 acres. However, the company is also experimenting with the use of various other cellulosic feedstocks, including corn stover, wheat straw and switchgrass.

Construction of the core process of ZeaChem’s demo plant, which will convert sugars to ethyl acetate, is currently slightly ahead of schedule and slightly under budget, Imbler said. “We’re using very classical engineering approaches, we have a very experienced team of people that have designed, built and operated lots of these kinds of facilities,” he said. “I think that’s a good way to do it. You modify technology, but you don’t modify the way you build things.”

The cellulosic ethanol portion of the plant will be constructed using a $25 million grant awarded by the U.S. DOE last year and will become operational early next year.